As you probably know, the Competitor Group, a San Diego based media and event company, puts on nearly 100 races and has over 600,000 people registering for their events on an annual basis. Also, 700,000 folks read their publications. They are powerful, and their mega-successful “Rock and Roll” events attract crowds like no other road racing series.
Last week The Competitor Group decided that the half million dollars they were paying elites in appearance, travel, and prize money at their North American events was not a good business decision anymore. It is terrible for track, but I get it.
It cannot be denied that value of elites in our sport is weak. I did not say that the elites are weak. The top athletes in track are actually amazing. Rather, companies are not seeing value in paying them. This is not the blame game, but look at the direction of NBC, ESPN, Reebok, adidas, and nearly every local paper in American that is not called the Register Guard. Unless I am missing something, all have pulled away from investing in and featuring elite track and field athletes.
Track and field, cross country, and road racing are not on television or in print as much as they were 20 years ago. The Internet is a great platform to reach audiences, but the reduction in other media outlets has a brutal effect on attracting casual fans and general populations. And thinking about the lack of revenue when the sport is not on television makes my head hurt.
Shoe companies also get punched in the stomach when unsponsored athletes run fast, win medals, and perform at high levels in homemade tank tops. I understand. It seems to not make sense, but we are missing the point if we only ask “where is the sponsorship?” The question needs to be asked “where is the value?” Once that question is answered, funding will be available.
No, I am not going to brainstorm the ways elites can increase their value. This has been done many times, and a lot of intriguing ideas are out there. Rather, Competitor Group’s actions are not a call for concepts. Elites have blogged for and been spotlighted by Competitor Group’s productions for years. Now they are saying they are not worth the money.
My worry about the value of elites has been compounding at the beginning of May for nearly 15 years. Stanford puts on one of the best track meets in America, hardly charges admission, and the crowds are alarmingly small. The five million people who live within an hour of Stanford are not seeing value in the Payton Jordan meet, and it makes no sense to me.
People are not going to meets, sponsorships are shrinking, and prize money is going away. We have a major problem, and I am hardly the first person to notice. Nick Symmonds gets it and is busting his rear to fix it. People like Leo Manzano and Chelsea Reilly get it everytime they pay rent.
Though I respect their effectiveness, Competitor Group’s move definitely hurts. Competitors are no longer their focus. Participants and completers are more valuable than Deena, Ryan, and Meb when it comes to paying the bills. This $500k reality is tough to swallow.
What is the answer? Just when elites are getting squeezed tighter than ever, they have to tighten up more. Elites need to come together and channel their energy in the same direction. How do individually-minded athletes without a clear leader join forces to make decisive, quick effectiveness? The problem is that it does not seem right dump that responsibility in the lap of athletes like Eaton, Felix, Rupp, or Lagat simply because they win medals.
In two decades as a fan and and in my last six years with Flotrack, I am never been more concerned about the future of elite development and performance in track and field. Competitor Group simply followed a cost-cutting trend that is occurring more than our sport can afford. This particular financial blow stings. Money is taken from elites trying to win road races.
I look forward to the day when athletes work together to race in meaningful ways on North American soil, reach deeper into their communities to build fan bases, and make themselves marketable beyond social media. Maybe most important of all, athletes must unify with governing bodies to increase resources for those committed to being the best. These seems to be the hardest and most effective ways to grow track instead of firing off at companies trying to be smart economically.